Trip to the nervous system of the Wanda Metropolitano

René Abril joined Atlético de Madrid out of sheer rebellion. He thought that someone should be contrary to his friends, those who filled the streets with Madrid’s jerseys on teenage soccer afternoons. The same rebellion with which he completed, in 1999, the demanding career of technical engineer in telecommunications at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. A title that would allow him, 17 years later, to defend the colors of his team, no longer in the square, but in one of the most important stadiums in the world, in LaLiga Santander, and in front of thousands of rojiblancas jerseys. In 2016, April became the first CTO of his Atleti with the mission of designing the technological structure of the new Wanda Metropolitano.

“If you take an engineer to his team’s stadium, in his city … It makes my hair stand on end to tell it,” recalls Abril still excited. “I was going to spend the rest of my life knowing that I have been able to do my bit in this field! I had to take the job. ” A job that encompasses tasks as diverse as guaranteeing the mobile coverage of almost 70,000 fans, connecting the ignition and programming mechanisms of the lights or the temperature of the grass or trying to shield the club’s equipment against a cyberattack. Nothing that cannot be embraced by a “passionate about gadgets of any kind”.

How do you cross the story of an engineer who “didn’t have much connection” with football with one of the biggest teams in Spain? Although at first glance what happens on the pitch seems to be the most important thing, football is an unstoppable industry that, before the pandemic, was reaching revenues close to 30,000 million euros per year in Europe, according to a study by Deloitte . The professionalization of all levels of football, as the case of Abril shows, also provides opportunities outside the pitch.

The Wanda Metropolitano, on September 16, 2017, the day of its inauguration. Getty

Atlético de Madrid has more than 180 employees in its Business area, which is divided into Communication and Marketing, Exploitation and Operations, Commercial and Retail, Technology and Digital Development. The latter, led by Abril, is the youngest of the red-and-white structure. “There were already people helping with technological issues, but it was not understood as a department in itself, we were integrated into the Exploitation and Operations area,” he explains. In 2019, Atlético decided that technology was an independent leg in its organization chart.

“It is becoming more and more normal in the world of football,” emphasizes Abril, who before joining the ranks of Atlético de Madrid spent 15 years developing engineering projects, especially related to audiovisual production and broadcasting, for various clients of the media industry. From this maelstrom the strategy with which a club like Atleti is linked to technology is born. “We live from entertainment. The comfort of a fan is linked to its connectivity. We can never stop, ”explains Abril.

The stadium is the most important place for a soccer team. “More than a stadium, we conceive it as a technological building”, adds the director of Mattress Technology. The biggest challenge was to set up a network that could connect and operate all the services that are provided on a soccer field. “They are kilometers and kilometers of fiber optics that cannot be seen, that should not be the protagonists. The protagonists are always the fans, ”he says.

The Wanda Metropolitano under construction in 2015.
The Wanda Metropolitano under construction in 2015. Getty

It is a path that leads to an intelligent control room, a place that only about 15 people have access to, who manage from a closed circuit television, to the surveillance systems or the content broadcast on the more than 900 LED screens that there is in the enclosure (from a security warning on an entrance door to the result of the match or the name and image of a player in his locker).

It is the core of a nervous system that is completed with two data processing centers (CPDS). This is how the Wanda Metropolitano works, a stadium with two brains, one at each end, which guarantee its uninterrupted operation and allow it to never fail during the two and a half hours in which it hosts a football match. “But there are other kinds of events,” adds Abril. “Concerts, company events… We are prepared for everything. We also have rooms that LaLiga uses to host technologies such as its 360º repetition cameras or the Mediacoach performance data analysis system ”.

Being close to its partners is the main mission of Abril. This implies going beyond what happens in the stadium. “It’s not just about ensuring that when Koke scores a goal, the 68,000 fans can share the moment from their mobile phone at the same time,” explains Abril. Something that, like a goal, sounds easy to say, but very difficult to do and that he and his team have achieved. For this, 250 telephone antennas were installed, camouflaged “with the help of the infrastructure department and the club’s architects, they designed a football stadium with an invisible technological soul.” A similar structure, according to Abril, to that of a city of 100,000 inhabitants.

“After the construction of the stadium we moved to the new offices -in Wanda Metropolitano itself- and we began with our digital transformation when working at the club,” he says. It was a turning point for the rojiblancos employees. “We started to work practically without paper. It is a process of transformation that not only occurred abroad ”, he says. It was also a fundamental element when facing telework forced by the pandemic.

A new reality that has led to the latest innovation for his team: the way in which members access their profile on the Atlético website. A link that the pandemic forced to perfect. “We have created a new digital identity for fans, who now cannot enjoy the games, could have digital experiences. Buying in the store or checking the status of their fees is much easier and more intuitive for each of them, as well as safer, “he says.

The new digital access platform for Atlético de Madrid members.  One of the last projects of René Abril's team.
The new digital access platform for Atlético de Madrid members. One of the last projects of René Abril’s team. Atletico Madrid

Where the club’s organization cannot go, the Abril team, which grew from two to 13 people between 2015 and 2021, relies on strategic alliances with different partners. With the help of Telefónica, for example, they constantly analyze business needs to optimize digital transformation projects. With Acronis, a company specialized in cybersecurity, they work “all the backup and backup copies of critical systems to recover any information in the event of an attack”.

Almost everything that happens at the club today passes through the Technology area of ​​Atlético de Madrid. Abril and his team ensure that each platform contracted by the club complies, for example, with data protection regulations, but is also linked to the day-to-day life of the staff led by Diego Pablo Simeone. “We participate in the contracting of any sports performance analysis software. The first team is very autonomous at the level of needs. A person from the club acts as a link with them so that we can attend to all their requests, but they are more specific things ”, he explains.

Soccer and technology bring teams together as they move forward. “Everything is shared in the sector. We help each other with the other teams, we ask for advice, we look at the regulations together. And we always offer the Wanda Metropolitano as a laboratory. If LaLiga or one of our providers has an idea, you can come and try it here. And if it works, we can see how to implement it … “

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